SWAC Media Day 2015: A team-by-team look at the league _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern quarterback Austin Howard runs along the Jaguar sideline for the first down against Grambling in the 41st annual Bayou Classic, Saturday, Nov. 29, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

The 2014 Southern football season can best be appreciated in a context that extends beyond the 13 games it comprises.

The numbers show the season was a success: nine wins, four losses, a second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title.

The 38-24 loss to Alcorn State in the title game Saturday denied the Jaguars their primary goal, but their presence in it was nonetheless significant for the program.

“I didn’t take over a program,” said Odums, who is 22-13 since becoming head coach two games into the 2012 season. “I took over a team, and we’re slowly turning that team and that institution into a football program.

“What I consider a program is when you are consistently at the top and competing day in and day out. As we continue to build this program, I think people will look at us in the years to come and say, ‘They built it the right way.’ Programs can sustain all kinds of obstacles because they’re built with a solid foundation.”

Odums said there are facility upgrades that will be necessary to continue to build the program, but the performance on the field suggests the program has turned a corner.

The Jaguars went 4-5 after Odums became interim coach in the wake of a 0-2 start two years ago. Then almost out of nowhere, they went 9-4 and won the school’s first SWAC championship in 10 years last season. Then came this year’s return trip to the title game, runner-up finish and another 9-4 record.

“When I first got here we were coming off 4-7 and 4-7 seasons, and that’s a losing mentality,” Odums said Monday. “We had to create a mindset that gets you over that hurdle, that says, ‘We’re supposed to win, we believe we can win.’ And we were able to do that.”

Odums said he hasn’t heard of anyone approaching anyone on his staff about other job opportunities, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

“We’ve got some guys that are most definitely worthy of that,” Odums said. “It thought (the season) was successful for us, but it’s taxing on you. When you look at what we endured as coaches and players, it was a challenge.

“Anybody who wants to hire a coach who has proven he can handle and overcome whatever is thrown at them and keep it together and win, they should look at this staff, because they have a proven ability to follow our process and get you to the finish line with a chance to win. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Odums said the hardest part of the season was the start, seeing more than half a dozen players pulled off the team bus before it departed for the opener at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Aug. 31. Those players who weren’t academically cleared weren’t allowed to travel. He called it “a right hook we didn’t see coming.”

The assessment delayed the trip so long that the team arrived less than a hour before kickoff, and players were stretching during the national anthem. Odums said some players who were cleared after the busses left arrived on their own after kickoff and played.

Odums said it was “hard to watch” two weeks later when senior defensive backs Dionte McDuffy, Kevin King and D’Andre Woodland were told minutes before kickoff against Northwestern State that they weren’t cleared to play even though they had played in the first two games.

“It’s tough when you don’t have any answers for those guys,” Odums said. “So many times I watched these guys cry, and you can’t do anything to help. As a leader, you have to know when to show (emotion) and when not to.

“I didn’t throw in the towel and give up on them. They saw that and fought too to try to find good in everything. I think we did a great job of holding this team together and not letting adversity fold us. That’s why there shouldn’t be one person disappointed about this season.”

Odums is losing 14 seniors who were at the center of the program’s transformation.

“This senior class was fantastic,” he said. “The way they handled everything that happened to them will transfer to the freshmen, sophomores and juniors. If they find themselves in a tough predicament, they know they can handle it.”

Odums said the program can handle the losses because of a large number of underclassmen returning, the anticipation of another solid recruiting class, and the return of a handful of key players who were academically ineligible.

“We’re slowly building this thing,” he said. “It was tough, but we held it together.”

One of the most important returnees is quarterback Austin Howard, the SWAC Freshman of the Year.

“He’s going to be great,” Odums said. “The good thing is we have a lot of guys who are coming back.”

Odums said Southern is on track to continue building the program.

“It’s about winning over a consistent period of time,” he said. “We’re about remaining at the top. It wouldn’t be shocking if come next year we’re predicted at the top again. The biggest accomplishment is the SWAC Championship Game, and we’ve been to two of them now. Now that you’ve created that monster, people expect you to be playing for that game.”

Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate. For more coverage, follow our blogs at http://blogs.theadvocate.com